In November last year, Ofcom, the UK media watchdog, announced a set of rules to combat growing levels of obesity in children. According to a number of statistics, Britain is one of the fattest countries in Europe. The regulations called for a ban on adverts for food and drink which is high in fat, salt and sugar (“HFSS”):

  • in and around children’s programmes;
  • on dedicated children’s channels; and
  • on youth/adult orientated programmes where there is a high proportion of under 16-year-old viewers (the figure will be determined by a statistical method called indexing).

Food and drink will have to pass the Food Standards Agency’s nutrient profiling scheme in order to avoid classification as HFSS or “junk” food. The scheme has caused alarm in some sections of the food industry, where cheese and marmite (a spread made from yeast extract, which is a British favourite) have been deemed to be junk food.

Ofcom will enforce the ban from the end of January 2007, although existing advertising campaigns or campaigns in the final stages of creation will be allowed to continue running until June 2007. Dedicated children’s channels will have until the end of 2008 to comply.

Additional restrictions apply on the use of celebrities and third party licensed characters (e.g., cartoon characters) on all HFSS advertising, even outside of children’s airtime.

Advertising on popular shows such as “Big Brother” and “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!” would escape the ban as they have a low index of child viewers. However, shows like “The Simpsons” and “Friends” would be caught by the rules.

The ban will not prevent companies from using their own branded characters. Fast food chains would be free to use their characters as long as they are not shown in conjunction with any junk food.

Initial proposals focused on under 9- year-olds, but consultation closed at the end of last year in respect of extended restrictions covering under 16-yearolds. Any changes to the restrictions as a result of information obtained via the consultation were implemented at the end of January this year.

Ofcom has estimated that the impact on total broadcast revenues would be up to £39 million per year, falling to £23 million over time. Burger King estimates the ban could cost it up to £100 million in lost sales this year.

In the US, the issue of junk food advertising is also a hot topic. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for a ban on the advertising of junk food during children's television programmes. In the UK, food, advertising and media groups eagerly await Ofcom’s imminent announcement and final approval of the restrictions.